Two moments have defined wildlife expert Dave Donnelly’s life; one was the chance sighting of a breaching Southern Right Whale, old enough to have encountered the whaling industry’s dying days and close enough to intrigue a curious 13 year-old. An enchanting encounter.
The second was tragic and brutal, but we’ll get to that.
Both moments led him to a life of undersea exploring, an affection for silver wetsuits, an obsession with Orcas and the chance to join an historic expedition to hear the arias of the Antarctic Blue Whales.
Like many a child of the 70’s, Dave was propelled towards the ocean after watching the famed small ship Calypso and it’s skipper Jacques Cousteau who “wowed the first colour television generation with the kaleidoscopic beauty of the world beneath the waves.”
Years after watching Cousteau’s Silent World in silent awe, Dave was the stills photographer for the famous explorer’s son Jean-Michel’s 3D extravaganza, Whales & Dolphin’s 3. A rendezvous with a singing Humpback in the crystalline waters off Tonga was captured by Dave for the film.
Swimming between mothers and calves, ‘queuing’ for whales and hammering after a pod minding their own business, can be the by-products of a lucrative tourist attraction.
“I’ve found that sometimes when you are relaxed and happy to swim with whatever you encounter that day – Spinner and Bottlenose dolphins, Minke and pilot whales, Hawksbill Turtles, Whale Sharks, Manta Rays – you may just be approached by a Humpback or two keen to meet your acquaintance,” Dave says. “Either way is a beautiful way to spend a few days".
“Tonga has impressive volcanic caves with 20 metre high entrances, and two metre tall Gorgonian fan corals; teeming underwater walls and overhangs, multi-coloured fish life and exquisite blue waters. It’s one of my favourite places in the world,” Dave says.
His other favourite place is the NSW whale mecca Eden, which has become Dave’s prime viewing spot for his main obsession, the highly intelligent Killer Whale. So enamoured with the 6 tonne apex predator, he set up the Australian Orca Database for the public and commercial operations to log sightings, a who’s who of Orcinus Orca. The pin-up girl of the Orca community is Split-Fin, a female first seen in 1994, who has turned up in Tasmania’s Derwent River, Melbourne’s Port Phillip Bay, Eden and Jervis Bay. The marine expert’s impetus is the simple fact that the more we know, the better we can protect them.
It’s the same reason he set up, with Wildiaries founder Simon Mustoe, the Victorian Whale Stranding Response Network in the early 2000s. Before this coordinated and humane approach, the state government policy was defined as “shoot and dig”.
Dave’s other whale epiphany, that life defining moment, was witnessing the 1983 stranding of 87 false killer whales near Point Hicks, on the Victorian east coast. As a 13 year-old, he watched the saga unfold on TV, as twenty-one whales were shot by wildlife officers.
A history-making documentary Whale Savers filmed at the time was influential in helping change policies on beachings and galvanise more rescuers to action.
“You can’t watch something like that with a very strong sense of “never again”, I have often looked back at my scrapbook cuttings of that day. It was a terrible thing.
“You don’t need to kill a stranded whale, you can re-float it and you absolutely don’t need to kill a whale to study it, that has been proven beyond any doubt,” he says.
Earlier this year, Dave joined an 18-strong science team of acousticians, engineers, whale tagging experts and observers in another history-making endeavour to prove this point.
In a world first, acoustic technology was used to successfully find, track and study the biggest creature on Earth, the Antarctic blue whale.
Blue whales are very rarely seen in the Southern Ocean yet by using the new technology Dave and his cohorts on a seven-week voyage were able to collect 57 photo identifications, 23 biopsy samples and attach satellite tags to two of the colossal whales.
Antarctic blues have a very deep and resonating song which can be picked up hundreds of kilometres across the Southern Ocean.
The researchers made hours of recordings in the sample area, analysing the calls of Antarctic blue whale in real time. The researchers were then able to triangulate the position of the whales from their vocalisations and direct the ship to the target area.
The crew made an astounding 720 cetacean sightings, including Humpback, Minke, Fin and Bottle-nosed Whales.
It exceed my wildest expectations, a life long ambition to see one Antarctic Blue Whale and we saw fifty-seven,” he says.
What would the silver-suited Cousteau have thought of that?